A Solution for Bad Teaching? Really?

In a well-meaning article for The New York Times, Wharton professor Adam Grant proposes trifurcating tenure, slashing it apart, essentially, in order to save it. He ends by writing:

Dividing tenure tracks may be what economists call a Pareto improvement: It benefits one group without hurting another. Let’s reserve teaching for professors with the relevant passion and skill — and reward it. Sharing knowledge with students should be a privilege of tenure, not an obligation.

That sounds nice; there certainly is an appeal to splitting the tenured into researchers, teachers, and researcher/teachers and giving each differing requirements. After all, we split our universities into research institutions (generally universities), more traditionally student-centered colleges, and community colleges. Why shouldn’t tenure reflect that split?

Well, it already does. Expectations for tenure are institution specific. Few community colleges demand the same sort of publications that a top research institution does.

Grant’s proposal begs the question of just what tenure is. Writing in 1971, William Van Alstyne defined it:

Tenure, accurately and unequivocally defined, lays no claim whatever to a guarantee of lifetime employment. Rather, tenure provides only that no person continuously retained as a full-time faculty member beyond a specified lengthy period of probationary service may thereafter be dismissed without adequate cause. . . . [T]enure is translatable as a statement of formal assurance that . . . the individual’s professional security and academic freedom will not be placed in question without the observance of full academic due process.

Tenure, let me repeat, centers on due process and academic freedom. These are not things that are divisible by researchers and teachers but apply to both. Creating differing types of tenure for different roles will only weaken defenses of tenure by creating new and distinct constituencies of tenure. We don’t need that.

It may be (though my experience gainsays it) that there is no correlation between research and teaching, as Grant claims. But that does not mean there is no connection. Academic freedom itself, if nothing else, is a connection.

True, good researchers are not always good teachers, and vice versa. But that does not mean, as Grant claims, that “Tasks should be grouped together based on the skill sets of the individuals who hold them.” Education is not task-based in quite the same way business is. The way tenure decisions are made takes into account this very fact, anyway. Candidates are judged individually within broad (and, therefore, often poorly defined and, as a result, contentious) standards–and by a number of different groups within departments, the faculty as a whole, and administration. A star researcher is rarely held to the same teaching standards as a master teacher who, in turn, needn’t produce at quite the same level in order to gain tenure.

We certainly need to talk more, and more publicly, about tenure, but it would help to start with an understanding of just what it is meant to be and with what it is in practice. We should do this before proposing changes.

We’ve got to first understand that we’re not going to solve the problem of bad teaching simply by changing tenure. That will only happen with changes in training, hiring and mentoring–all of which precede tenure.

7 thoughts on “A Solution for Bad Teaching? Really?

  1. At many institutions, such as my own, there are minimum institution-wide expectations that are more specifically defined college by college and department by department. Even within departments, there are sometimes quite different expectations for faculty on the tenure-track. For instance, in the science departments, there are significantly different expectations for researchers and science educators. I imagine that the same is true in most institutions.

    At a time in which tenured and tenure-track faculty constitute at most 30% of the total faculty, I don’t think that the issue is how to fine-tune tenure requirements. Rather, the focus should be on how we can re-extend the benefits and protections of tenure to a larger percentage of the faculty.

  2. Grant admits, “tenure may be a necessary evil: It offers job security and intellectual freedom in exchange for lower pay…”
    Lower costs, job security, and intellectual liberty? That’s not a necessary evil. That’s a necessary good.

    To his credit, Grant advocates moving adjunct faculty to the teaching tenure track, although his suggestion for how to fund it (more research grants) is laughable at best. The truth is, we don’t need a three-track system (which would probably lead to a hierarchy in status and pay, and stultifying conditions for faculty who want to deviate from their track) for fixing tenure. All we need is a more rational system of tenure in which research is not given excessive emphasis, and all faculty are treated equally for their skills and interests. Most universities actually already have this, but the elite colleges remain obsessed purely with research. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to tenure, universities need to value excellence in all forms.

    Another problem with Grant’s three-track approach is that it would only heighten the neglect of service, that little stump on the wobbly three-legged system of tenure evaluation. Too often, service is taken to mean filling space on useless committees, but what it really means is helping to run the university and educating the entire campus community outside the individual classroom. That should be, at its best, given equal importance with teaching and research, but today service is a laughable concept in tenure review, and Grant doesn’t even bother to mention it.

    Instead of giving in to the misguided conventional wisdom that tenure is bad, Grant should be defending it as a good system that needs to be made better.

    • Right on target, John. And thanks for bringing up service. I ignored it because Grant had, but it is a critical component of tenure decisions, even if derided as a ball-and-chain best simply endured.

  3. The paradox: In most self-classified research universities, a large number of non tenure-track faculty a) do not do research b) are hired to teach not to do research .

  4. I find entry is more than a little short-sighted. The issue that was trying to be addressed was that all schools, including large research institutions, are hiring large numbers of adjuncts. In addition, there are far more Ph.D. than there are tenure-track positions, and this condition gets worse every year. I agree that a 3-track tenure system isn’t the solution, and that a more inclusive tenure system that takes into account varying mixtures of teaching/service/research is the way to go. But you can’t just expect Ph.D. to sort themselves into the different institutions that emphasize these various areas. I’m at a large state research institution, where I teach 1000+ students a year in 8 different courses, and I get stellar teaching reviews. I also manage to do a little research, but don’t I don’t bring in big grants. I also do a lot of committee work in various areas, although often can’t be a voting member of these committees because I’m an adjunct. I’ve been here for years, and would be here many more, but I’ll never get tenure here with the system as it is now because my research isn’t strong enough. And I know my position is not unique – there are others here in a similar position, and many others at other institutions.

    • Giving adjuncts tenure, if that’s what you mean, isn’t the solution, either. They still will be underpaid and, quite frankly, abused (who pays you for the committee work you are doing, for example), What we need to be doing is finding ways of converting adjuncts to a tenure track of full-time employment.

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